Coming just 10 months after his over-produced sophomore album failed to build on the momentum of his debut, Chariot, and its ubiquitous hit “I Don’t Want to Be,” Gavin DeGraw’s Free sounds like a rush job. With just nine songs—one of them a solid cover of the late Chris Whitley’s “Indian Summer”—and a stripped-down aesthetic that owes as much to DeGraw having fired his band as to a deliberate artistic choice, Free is a bit thin. Although the songs may have benefited from a bit more work (“Why Do the Men Stray” strings together a series of obvious rhymes and naïve observations about gender differences, while “Dancing Shoes” sounds like Marc Cohn’s “Walking in Memphis” without a compelling narrative or hook), but there are moments when the less fussy production suits DeGraw well. He has a more textured, expressive voice than some of his contemporaries, and he delivers “Lover Be Strong” and lead single “Stay” with real conviction. What works about Free and what elevates it above his first two albums is that the scope of the low-key, loose production is well matched to DeGraw’s workmanlike songwriting and his unpretentious vocal performances. The album may not have any standout hooks to give him another inescapable radio hit, but it does suggest that DeGraw has finally found a style that suits him well.
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